Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Essentials: Suicide Squad volume one

I have a general stance on books in which villains are the protagonists, and that is that if they run too long, they tend to be no good and do more harm than good to the characters they are meant to spotlight. I think a good limited series, one-shot or original graphic novel giving the stage to a bad guy can be rad, as can something like Dark Avengers where the plot is very driven by the current state of the larger universe, but a solo ongoing series in which a popular ne'erdowell stars generally doesn't end well.

My two clarion examples of my above statement have always been the Deathstroke ongoing and Venom series of minis from my youth. Both showed that if you're going to have a badass mercenary or slobbering sociopath as your point guy, eventually they've got to soften to the point where readers can sympathize with them. In the 90's, it was this trajectory that caused both Deathstroke and Venom to lose their teeth and go from awesome villains to shades of grey wussies. It took tremendous effort to rehabilitate both guys in the past decade (Eddie Brock is still a complex work in progress).

Thusly it was with great trepidation that I took Geoff Johns up on his recommendation at San Diego Comic Con in 2004 that the original Suicide Squad series from the 80's was one I needed to check out. As Geoff had not led me wrong to that point, I went ahead and grabbed the first few issues of what he claimed was one of the definitive books in shaping his career from the back issue bins for cheap and figured if nothing else I had some decent plane reading for the trip home.

Wouldn't you know it, Geoff Johns was right again.

Spinning out of the 1986-87 Legends events, writer John Ostrander brought back the classic DC (and frankly evergreen fiction) concept of the Suicide Squad, a group of government operatives who headed into each mission with full knowledge that it could very well be their last. The twist Ostrander added was that whereas the Slver Age Task Force X (as the Squad was also known) filled its ranks with military men and women, this new group would be primarily comprised of super villains given the option to serve in exchange for having their prison sentences reduced with a few quasi-heroic types like Rick Flag and the Bronze Tiger along for the ride to keep them in line.

Through 66 issues and several Annuals plus a one-shot special or two, Ostrander was the driving creative force behind Suicide Squad, aided by a rotating group of artists and more significantly by his wife and co-plotter, Kim Yale (who passed away from breast cancer in 1997). Ostrander, Yale and company not only produced a stunning work that stands out from so much of what was being produced in late 80's ongoing super hero comics (it is far more in line with stuff like Frank Miller's Daredevil or Alan Moore's Watchmen than the Superman and Spider-Man comics of the time), they created perhaps the exception that proves the rule about books starring villains being a bad idea. They also opened up a darker, more mature corner of the DC Universe that I'd wager contributed in some ways to the birth of Vertigo and still resonates today in recent books like Checkmate and just about anything featuring Amanda Waller.

Perhaps the greatestest strength of Suicide Squad, what set it apart from other titles and allowed it to succeed regardless of the cast's moral leanings, was the ability of Ostrander and Yale to create or refine characters who felt like real people, warts and all. The DC Universe of 1987, both on its own and in contrast to Marvel, had always been a place comprised of infallible heroes who smiled and saved the day, their flaws only coming to the surface in the most intense of stories. Ostrander and Yale gave the members of the Squad as well as their support staff and supervisors personalities ranging from mundane to sadistic, but at the end of the day you definitely got the feel the guy living down the street from you could more likely be Nemesis than Green Lantern (and not just because Nemesis was a master of disguise). The world of the Squad was a dark, twisted and often terrifying place--though not without a healthy dose of black comedy--but also somewhere you could quite easily see yourself living, and that made the series all the more powerful.

As for the cast itself, Ostrander and Yale made the most of their rotating band of misfits, plugging all sorts of different characters into the Squad with varying degrees of success, but always making sure the book never hurt for variety. Aside from series pivot Amanda Waller and regulars Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and Bronze Tiger plus key players Flag, Nightshade and Nemesis (more on all of them later), you really never knew what you were going to get with Suicide Squad. You had your cannon fodder villains like Mindboggler or Slipknot, but you'd also get the occasional high profile baddie like the Penguin or Captain Cold being forced out of their colorful exploits battling Batman and the Flash into the murky waters of infiltrating Communist Russia or exposing corrupt U.S. politicians. Sometimes, particularly in the cases of Poison Ivy and Count Vertigo, these "A-listers" ended up sticking around and enjoying some of their best stories serving with the Squad.

You also had what can best be termed as "reclamation projects," where Ostrander and Yale took characters who had never quite reached their full potential elsewhere, such as Vixen or Roy Harper, and saw if they could be made to work with less of a super hero bent, an approach which sometimes panned out beautifully and other times flopped, but credit for bravery. Perhaps the best example of this approach would be Barbara Gordon, as the broken Batgirl was picked up by Suicide Squad and transformed into the wonderful Oracle character who has endured to this day. The Atom also got a much-needed pick-me-up from serving on the Squad in a story that brought Superman and Aquaman briefly into the title alongside frequent guest star Batman in a trippy tale that really stretched the scope of the DCU.

Ostrander and Yale also cast their net far and wide for recruits, going to Kirby's Fourth World to nab Lashina or to the misty lands that would soon become Vertigo to grab hold of Black Orchid and Shade, the Changing Man; heck, Grant Morrison himself even served one ill-fated mission with the Squad.

This ever-shifting and eclectic roster served to hammer home the core impetus of Suicide Squad and the "gimmick" the title brought to the table: Anything can happen, nobody is safe. Indeed, a character dies in the very first issue and the random bloodshed continues throughout the entire series. It's not just the folks wearing costumes who fall either, as supporting characters who Ostrander and Yale will make you fall in love with or want to punch in the face often get caught in the crossfire. Hell, characters you would have tabbed only issues earlier as indispensable are written out in grisly fashion and the book just reinvents itself and moves on.

Nobody is safe--and it's awesome.

However, beyond the bells and the whistles of guest stars, quirky also-rans getting a shot and creeping death, Ostrander and Yale assembled an incredibly strong core of characters who would serve as Suicide Squad's touchstone through the title's existence.

Always at the eye of the storm was Amanda Waller, perhaps John Ostrander's most enduring contribution to the DC Universe and truly a one of a kind character (which I'm sure those around her says their thanks for every day). Indeed "The Wall" is generally less a simple character and more a force of nature, a physically imposing (in her own way) shitkicker who doesn't suffer fools, who has tunnel vision when it comes to her goals, and who has no problem crossing any and every moral and ethical line if it serves the greater good. Oh, and did I mention that this strong, prominent, uncompromising character also happens to be an African-American woman?

Throughout the course of Suicide Squad you were never really quite sure whether to classifiy Amanda as a hero or a villain, and that certainly seemed to be in accordance with what Ostrander and Yale were shooting for. What drove Waller on a personal level was always a mystery that the writers would only peel back and reveal very small pieces of on the rare occasions they tantalized you with glimpses into her personal life. You'd get so caught up in the fact that this lady who was drawn as wide as she was tall could get all up in Batman's face that you didn't realize how much you were salivating to learn her motivations until they were dangled in front of you. It was always tough to get a handle on whether or not the Squad really was a force for ultimate good or just a tool Amanda was using to further her own shadowy agenda, and that ambiguity served the series well.

Aside from the Wall, the three characters who somehow survived with the Squad beginning to end were Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and Bronze Tiger, with Nightshade not far behind, Nemesis clocking in behind her, and Rick Flag getting an incomplete for reasons I'd rather not fully spoil despite the story being two decades old and since retconned because it was that good.

Before the Squad, Deadshot was a dime-a-dozen Batman bad guy, Captain Boomerange was one of the less interesting Flash Rogues, Bronze Tiger was Richard Dragon's sidekick and Nightshade was a Charlton acquisition headed for inevitable limbo. Ostrander and Yale made Deadshot an unquestionable badass with the cool of Clint Eastwood and that ever-present "does he have a deathwise or not?" question hovering over him to the point where fans were rabid for his background-expanding mini once it came out a couple years in (prior to his Squad days, that would have been like people clamoring for a Cavalier origin story). Boomerbutt became the DCU's uncrowned king of gallows humor and the scummiest of the scummy; the boomerang-tossing creep fans absolutely loved to hate. Bronze Tiger emerged as a man torn between a violent past and questionable present fighting for future happiness that seemed unattainable. Nightshade was the moral compass of a team that had no need for one and became a truly tragic figure on many levels.

Like few other writers in comic book history, Ostrander and Yale were masters of getting the best out of every character they touched, regardless of where they came from or what baggage the brought with them.

You may have noticed I've focused primarily on characters up to this point, and that's because I saw Suicide Squad as a very character-driven series--an impressive feat given the rapid entrances and exits of so many--but I don't want to give short shrift to some of the amazing plots Ostrander and Yale tangled said characters up in. Suicide Squad came at a time when it was becoming somewhat in vogue to infuse comics with real world politics and tackle the corresponding issues, but they really pushed the envelope in that regard and did it with maturity as opposed to preachiness or too on-the-nose. In addition to the aforementioned trip to Russia to free an oppressed revolutionary writer and Flag's ongoing quest to weed out dirty politics in the U.S. senate, the Squad also took on fundamentalist terrorists, rival intelligence agencies, the drug trade, and war-torn third world countries being run by dictators.

On the flipside, Waller and company journied to Apokolips and battled Granny Goodness, battled an army of zombies and took part in DC crossovers like Millenium, Invasion!, and War of the Gods. Suicide Squad often felt like a book on the fringe of the DC Universe, but it never had any trouble slipping back in when necessary.

Suicide Squad was also a book that rewarded long-time readers in a very satisfying way. Some plot threads introduced in the first 10 issues weren't paid off until a few years down the line, but when they were, it was worth it. Seemingly incidental characters were never what they seemed and almost always came back to play a bigger role. Past grudges were never forgotten. Slow-simmering revenge plots came to a boil nicely. I'm sure it may have gotten knocked for not being entirely new-reader-friendly, but Suicide Squad was a book with a plan.

Why do I feel like Suicide Squad ultimately succeeded where most "villain books" fail? Because really it wasn't a book about the heroic ideal or about bad guys twirling their mustaches, it was a series about life. Yes, in this case "life" centered around a group of super villains based out of a prison going on crazy missions they weren't expected to return from, but there was something very earnest about that. There was something you could connect with in Rick Flag's survivor's guilt, Nightshade's search for that elusive silver lining and even Captain Boomerang's self-serving schemes. This were people not trying to save or doom the world, they were just doing a job and bringing a psychology textbook worth of problems along with them. They became real to you and you mourned both their losses and their loss.

It was never pretty, but maybe that's why Suicide Squad was a book that felt like home, albeit one you hoped never to live in for long. John Ostrander, Kim Yale and company created a world that was the ultimate in escapism because it didn't feel that far off; while part of you was relieved to close each issue, a larger part was anxious to revisit the most unreliable group of friends you'd ever find.


C.H.U.D. said...

I loved Captain Boomerang in this series. Every sentence is true, Suicide Squad was one of the finest books of the '80s.

Jay Faerber said...

Excellent piece, Ben. Glad Geoff turned you onto this. It's probably one of all-time favorite DC books.